The Anti-Canon series is a collection of short essays focusing on writers less well known, positioned outside of the literary mainstream or simply deserving more attention. An alternative (but by no means definitive) list of works that have influenced the writers at Influx Press, offering a different perspective to what is, and what is not, considered ‘important’, and hopefully giving you some new books to read into the bargain…
The first time I heard about the Baroness was through an online course in Modern American poetry. She was introduced as having once advised American Imagist poet William Carlos Williams that if he were to contract syphilis from her he could then free his mind for serious art. She loved Marcel Duchamp, terrified William Carlos Williams and was praised by Ezra Pound for her ‘principle of non-acquiescence’. Duchamp even proclaimed that she ‘is not a Futurist, she is the future’. Her antibourgeois, anti-establishment and anti-hierarchical stance make her an undervalued precursor to the feminist punk movement of the 1990s and even conceptualist pop artist Lada Gaga. So what happened to this German poet, sculptor and model who was once the epitome of American Dada? Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven died in poverty in Paris in 1927. Like numerous other female artists, she was shunned as eccentric and mad in her own time and rejected from the overwhelmingly male literary canon of Modernism. Yet it is precisely her confrontational style and ‘linguistic fearlessness’ which deem her extremely worthy of attention.
After over a century of dormancy - her presence only registered as a footnote on the pages of Modernist literary history, the Baroness’s oeuvre finally arrived in 2011 courtesy of The Mit Press. Body Sweats The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was beautifully compiled and edited by Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazo and presents the first major collection of the Baroness’s writing and sculptural work alongside scholarly notes and stylised photos of her modelling her elaborate costumes. It is both a recovery and an acknowledgement of a prolific and talented female artist who broke all the rules in life and in art. For the Baroness, life praxis and art were one; she made no compromise with American life and its social conventions. She challenged cultural and gender norms through her art, writing, 'artistic clothes' and her daily interactions with people.
The Baroness took a rather kleptomaniacal approach to the commodity capitalism which she saw emerging around her. New York was her catwalk where she paraded her androgynous body, meticulously adorned with the stolen and found elements of America’s consumer society. She is described variously with half shaved head, dyed hair, spoons dangling from her ears, postage stamps stuck on her cheeks, sporting a bra made out of tomato cans and bracelets made out of stolen curtain rings. In this way she used her body to address the commodification of femininity in its extremity.
Body Sweats is arranged thematically into poems of love and desire, city poems, nature poems, poems of philosophical contemplation, poems on death and old age. The poems themselves are art objects drawn in red and green ink alongside sketches and diagrams, ‘presented with the same visceral immediacy they had when they were composed.’ In all her writing the Baroness takes her own body as a poetic muse to explore taboo subjects. In a time where ‘feminine’ qualities were reinforced in culture and society the Baroness proudly writes in The Modest Woman (1920) ‘Why should I – proud engineer – be ashamed of my machinery – part of it?’ She discarded the prudishness of certain strands of American society and what some might (and most did) shy away from, the Baroness embraced with humour and graphic honesty. Her poem Kindly is a mocking reply to the public censure that followed the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses. The poem (below) I’m sure needs no explanation.
Dada emerged after the First World War as an expression of anxiety and disgust at the mass slaughter of mechanised warfare, increasing consumerism and the widespread propaganda of the early Twentieth Century. The Baroness and the male Dadaists shared a contempt for the ‘gatekeepers of high art’ – those who had the power to censure and exclude what didn’t suit their tastes. However she associated this contempt with a patriarchy who In her 1927 poem A Dozen cocktails Pleaseoccupy the Babylonian ‘obelisk’, a tall, narrow monument which is shaped into a pyramid at the top. From this position the bourgeois can enjoy ‘high’ art whilst the struggling artists who create it remain destitute below. She also exposes the hypocrisy of a society which granted women the vote in 1920 yet still denied them the same freedoms as men:
‘I am adult citizen with
Vote-- I demand my unstinted share
In roofeden-- witchsabbath of our baby-
The Baroness was acutely aware of how class and gender divisions perpetuated inequalities. In A Dozen Cocktails Please – (a brave title for a country going through prohibition which lasted into the 1930s), the Baroness rejects the socially constructed and restraining roles of ‘mother’, ‘housewife’, and ‘spinster’. Through her poetry we hear the soundtrack of the city, the city she absorbed and portrayed but which ultimately rejected her. At the beginning of the poem she merges banana shortages with her own sexual appetite and preference for oral sex through the popular Broadway song by Frank Silver and Irving Cohn Yes we Have No Bananas:
‘No spinsterlollypop for me-- yes-- we have
No bananas I got lusting palate-- I
Always eat them-- -- -- -- -- -- --'
In her poems the Baroness flaunts copious advertising slogans, jingles and cultural references only to disrupt and reject them: ‘I’m no tongueswallowing yogi’ she refuses to be a passive consumer of ‘the up-to-date-American-Home-comforts.’ The Baroness offers her own way of negotiating and interpreting a world which (similarly to our own) was increasingly, saturated with images, products and advertising. Her ready-made sculptures, poetry and outfits are all derived from the detritus of contemporary American consumer culture.
The Baroness self-consciously performed gender roles and traversed societal expectations of femininity. She rejected the domesticity of heterosexual marriage and its inevitable associations with monogamy, instead candidly confronting issues surrounding birth control and masturbation. Risqué topics you won’t catch in your school poetry anthology. Her mention of vibrators as ‘coy flappertoy’ and condoms as: ‘dandy celluloid tubes -- all sizes -- Tinted diabolically as a baboon's hind-complexion’ humorously affirm the right for female sexual pleasure divorced from motherhood and reproduction. Her poetry feels entirely relevant and contemporary. In A Dozen Cocktails Please she writes ‘The very word penetrates’ and Body Sweats is proof that it does. Even after a century the Baroness’ poetry still has the power to shock, challenge and make us rethink gender stereotypes and societal expectations and norms. In eschewing the rule book of traditional poetry she says exactly what she wants, exactly how she wants:
'"Say it with-- -- --
Serpentine aircurrents-- -- --
Hhhhhphssssssss! The very word penetrates
I feel whoozy!
I like that. I don't hanker after Billyboys-- but I am entitled
To be deeply shocked.
So are we-- but you fill the hiatus.
Dear-- I ain't queer-- I need it straight -- --
A dozen cocktails-- please-- -- -- --'
Kyra Hanson is a feminist and poet. Some of her poems can be found here: kyrasianhanson.blogspot.co.uk